Saturday, 4 February 2012

Kate Griffin: The Midnight Mayor (2010)

I read this, the second in a series, without having read the first, so in describing this book, I may give away aspects of the first without intending to.

Sorcerer Matthew Swift is dead, but he remains alive through the symbiotic relationship he has with the blue light angels, spirits of electrical current, who now also inhabit his body. He restlessly walks the streets of London at night, until one evening at the beginning of The Midnight Mayor when he answers a payphone which rings as he passes it and is magically attacked down the wire. Before long, he discovers that London is under attack from the "death of cities", and he has been chosen to defend it, taking on the office of Midnight Mayor.

I found that The Midnight Mayor grew on me as I read through it. It seemed at first to be just another of the currently fashionable urban fantasy novels, but in the end Swift's dual character is well enough portrayed, and his solution as to how he can stop the death of cities is interesting enough, to raise the story out of the crowd. Kate Griffin began as a writer for children, and some of the details of The Midnight Mayor are somewhat reminiscent of parts of China Miéville's brilliant Un Lun Dun; examples include the heavy metal spectres and the appearance of the death of cities.

London is of course a city full of ancient myths and legends, but the interesting aspect of Griffin's take on it is the idea that magic is based on what has significance for the sorcerer, which makes it possible to build up a whole new, up to date urban mythology, where seers prophesy using the entrails of ragged plastic bags, and the words of spells are not Latin or Hebrew but come from legal and official documents such as parking tickets and ASBOs (the latter not providing terribly effective magic, naturally). Any object which is in some way part of London's culture can become part of the magic, whether graffiti tags or the information on Underground notice boards. This immediately makes Matthew Swift's world stand out from so many other works of urban fiction, as the modern urban setting is vital to its internal mythology.

The main reason why The Midnight Mayor grew on me was that it is well constructed (the way the magic works being just one example of how clearly thought through the world building is), carefully building to a climax which proves well worth the wait, if perhaps a little predictable in some of its details.

Edition: Orbit, 2010
Review number: 1439

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